From the beginning where Ram Barrington comes across Joy Claret disguised in boy's clothes, holding two paddyrollers captive, while waiting for her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad:
It was the habit of Ram Barrington to run for no other reason than the sheer joy and exhilaration of physically exhausting himself. He'd developed this odd habit as a young boy; it helped him escape the pain and terror of a troubled childhood long forgotten. Later, running had eased the accumulated tension and restlessness of many long sea voyages taken as a young boy aboard his great uncle Sir Admiral Byron's English man-of-war. Then, as a young man, it helped ease the tedium, his impatience with the slow peaceful pace of India's eternal summers. The habit carried over into adulthood, and he sometimes chuckled to himself with a vision of himself as an old eighty-year-old man, cane in hand, still passing an early morning hour or so trying to run.
He had cleared a good six or seven miles, with another mile or two left in his legs, when Rake, his great mastiff dog, caught scent of something and dashed on ahead, barking. The narrow path ran alongside a fair-sized stream. Ram spotted the pond, dammed by two large fallen trunks, and after a quick inspection, the cool depth could not be resisted.
As he rested, drying in the sun, he suddenly realized Rake had not returned or stopped barking. Not particularly wanting a dead rabbit dropped at his feet, he set off in pursuit.
The path led abruptly to a small clearing. Agitated and still barking, Rake held an attack stance in front of two bound, gagged and apparently quite unconscious men.
"What the devil is this?"
Joy Claret was asking herself that exact question as she stared in great alarm. She could not explain the threat she felt from this man's inexplicable presence, but he was like no other man the innocence of her eyes had ever beheld. She felt the danger—danger that moved as a physical force through her frame, causing her breath to catch and a cold numbness to seep into her hands. Her hands tightened around the pistol.
The blatant masculinity of his imposing form as he stood there, hands on hips, staring at the bounty hunters, seemed at once more dangerous than ... than even those pirates she watched pass on the road! Half naked and bootless—this did seem the day for affronts to her sensibilities—the bronze frame was tall, taller even than Sammy, and he wore only sun-washed white breeches, cut at the knees, and a black belt. His bare form radiated a threatening and well-exercised strength. Muscles, he seemed nothing but muscles. Numerous scars marked the wide breadth of his bare muscled chest—testament to what could only be too many battles fought and won. Thick, raven-black curls crowned distinctly aristocratic features. As if an artist painted the square cut to his jaw, his wide firm mouth, fine large nose and markedly prominent forehead, his features were all drawn with clean strong strokes. Yet the final stroke, she saw with a small gasp, was a black patch that covered one eye.
Alarm rose not from any one of the recklessly handsome features but by the complete impression. She had no strength, depended solely on her wits, and what frightened her the most was the sense that he also had an intelligence so quick and sharp it could swallow hers in a bite.
She had yet to take a breath when he moved toward the captives. The pounding of her heart produced the idea of remaining silent and not alerting him to her presence. It was no use; surely he'd spot Libertine and then her. And oh God, where had her senses fled? If he should be allowed to rouse the captives, all would be lost.
A long jeweled dagger, pearl inlaid and sparkling with rubies and emeralds, appeared in his hand, and when she saw this, she found her voice. "Hold it right there, mister! Or I'll blow you to bits!"
Ram stopped and froze, his normally quick mind requiring several long seconds to give reality to the squeakiest, queer voice he had ever chanced to hear. He turned slowly and found the owner of this voice perched in the tree like a parrot. Surprised by so unlikely an event as being held at gunpoint by a small brat and out in the middle of nowhere, his amusement took some seconds to overcome his incredulity.
"What mischief is this?"
Joy Claret knew the exact moment laughter warmed the cold, dark gaze. The man's amusement, to say nothing of the arrogance of his demand, spoke wagonloads for her trouble. "Whatever it is, mister, it is not your concern!''
Simultaneously, both their gazes turned to Rake. The huge monstrosity of a dog maintained an attack stance on the two bound men, completely ignoring what anyone else might think a real threat to his master. This brought Ram's gaze back to the tree, and with sudden renewed interest, he started toward her.
He stopped, now only four paces from her.
"That's right, just stand still while I reason out your fate."
A dark brow lifted. "Indeed!" He chuckled. "I hardly intend to rest my fate in your ah, trembling hands." He watched the sky-blue eyes look to her hands, as if to ascertain the reality of the assertion.
Joy desperately attempted to steady her aim.
"I'll tell you once, brat," he said more gently. "You'll fare far better if you drop to the ground now and start explaining this mishap."
Anger flushed her cheeks. She couldn't believe it, him, his unequaled arrogance! "News to you—you nefarious scoundrel—I have a pistol pointed at you!"
Dark brows drew together with confusion. Nefarious scoundrel? Hardly the curse words of a backwoods brat. Damn that voice too, so curiously feminine, as though the lad was a recent audition for the Vienna Boys' Choir—
The thought brought a quick appraisal of the boy's hands. In all his years, he had yet to see a boy—any boy—with clean and manicured nails, let alone fingers so obviously thin and feminine.
He stared long and hard at the delicate and lovely features that were suddenly far too feminine, even for a pretty boy. Quick anger arrived, controlled only by a sudden—and for him, rare—curiosity. He would play her game only long enough to know where it led.
"Now—" she desperately attempted a gruff, mean, and male tone that remained infuriatingly out of reach. "You just sit where you stand, while we wait."
"Wait for what?'
"For my friends. I can't very well keep a pistol to you and tie you up at the same time, can I?" she explained. "So, we'll just have to wait for my friends.''
"And how many, ah, friends are we expecting?"
Two—I mean twenty!" She quickly changed her mind. She had to sound meaner, much meaner. "So sit, mister!"
"You shouldn't threaten a person with a gun if you don't have the necessary inclination to use it."
Her gaze narrowed. "What makes you think I won't use it?"
"Had you or your, ah, twenty friends been murderers, no doubt those two fools there," he motioned, "would have bullet holes where only bruises show."
Disarmed by his quick reasoning, Joy tried to dissuade him from this belief. "I assure you, sir, I'd be just as pleased to shoot you as to look at you!" She misread plain malice as fear, and ridiculously, before she thought better of her natural inclination, she said, "Oh, don't worry, I truly won't shoot if you just do as I say."
"Ah! I suppose this means I can stop my quivering!"
A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and while his wit disarmed her again, she wisely concluded his charm best ignored. His hand still held a dagger, and she saw this as her first exercise in authority.' "You can drop your dagger first off."
"My thought exactly." He lifted the dagger as though to drop it, but with a casual flick of his wrist, it sliced through the air in a flash, expertly hitting its mark right between her open legs. Joy gasped, tried to catch her balance, but fell backward, landing with an ugly thud to the ground. Although the wind was knocked out of her, she quickly scrambled to her feet with a speed that impressed her audience of one. He let her run a few paces to satisfy a desire to see her backside before he tackled her to the ground in three easy strides. Strong arms braced her, and she cried out as, curiously, those same arms cushioned her fall, allowing an impact no more jarring than a tumble to hay.
Then his weight came upon her.
Joy had the good sense to be frightened at a distance, but now she knew terror as his hard form pressed intimately upon her, stifling any thought of a struggle. He pinned her arms to the blanket of moss, and her terror grew as his gaze raked over her in unsurpassed scrutiny.
"God, girl," his gaze finally returned to her face. "There's enough femininity in this package to arouse a blind man. I don't know how you thought to disguise it."
Until that moment, she hadn't known he had guessed her sex. A maiden's fear sprang quickly in her enchanting eyes, real, tremendous, and forever alien to him. Why this bothered him, he couldn't say; she at least deserved the fear.
"Your explanation had better be good, brat. That a young girl mustered the audacity to behave so is only slightly less infuriating than the thought of the man who put you up to it."
He saw she could barely comprehend, let alone venture a reply, the enormity of it was so great. Her breath came in huge gulps, and she looked as though she fully expected a blow to her face. "Rest easy, brat," he said slowly. "I've never had the inclination to molest young girls by the roadside."
She remained perfectly still, the words penetrating slowly, but bringing little reassurance.
This brought some small amusement. "Even if I had though, you'd have naught to worry. You're pretty enough, I suppose," he ventured, lifting partially from her to again review her assets. "Provided one had the imaginative facilities necessary to see through this garb. But this skinny slip of a figure hardly offers a temptation."
Comprehension sank through her fear, and then only partially, the terror of being caught, held and helpless left her nearly deaf and certainly dumb. All she gathered from his speech was the subject of molestation. "Please don't hurt me..."
This plea utterly disarmed him, doing more for her case than a hundred jurists, not just because it accurately revealed the extent of her desperation, so markedly incongruent with the boldness of her behavior, but because of the tone. Her voice sounded frightened, altogether feminine, and held an alluring blend of accents—an English hit mixed with soft Southern lyricism.
"After I turn you over my knee for a well-deserved thrashing, I won't hurt you. Probably."
She frantically searched the devilishly fine features to finally discern his amusement.
He thought of her as nothing but a misbehaving child, she realized and relief swept over her form. Once released from the burden of that fear, she was suddenly, acutely conscious of the great inexplicable warmth of his body pressed on hers, the shocking intimacy and feel of his hard muscled strength. "What then shall you do?" she asked rather breathlessly.
"That depends wholly on your story," he said, glancing up at the two bound men. "Now, what has happened here?"
One coherent thought rose through the waves of her pounding temples. Sammy and the Reverend would not return for over an hour, and somewhere in that time she must escape from this man to warn them. Libertine neighed angrily nearby, making plain her displeasure with her mistress' situation. "Please, loose me—"
"Not in your wildest dreams," he said simply.
"Oh but..." She squirmed to give credence to the complaint, "You're hurting me so."
"What an inconsistent little fool," he chuckled. "After holding me at gun point, you would now beg privileges of your sex?"
"But I can't talk like this! Truly!"
"You better try because I've already mentioned the only other position you're likely to get from me."
This confirmed the growing suspicion that he was hard-nosed and mean, cruel in the extreme. She had not lived with the Reverend's mendacity without picking up a few tricks. "I know what this must look like," she began dramatically. "But honestly, you mistake the circumstances! You see," her tone lifted higher as the lie came to her. "My uncle, Sammy and I are the victims here! We were traveling to Carlisle when these two ... bandits over there tried to rob us. Well! Few men can best Sammy—our Negro—or my uncle. And I can assure you—and you can see for yourself—they soon reversed the situation. They tied the highwaymen up and knocked them out, as you see there, and left me to guard them while they went to fetch the proper authorities."
Nothing in all her life, even in these last awful minutes, scared her as much as the changed emotion on his face. He said only, "The next lie you tell will be your last; I will make you regret the breath it was uttered in."
She waited for her next breath, which would not come. The silence filled with the sound of rushing water and the ever present cries of birds, flying with a freedom she had cause to envy.
"I'm growing impatient with you." The hard lines of his face gave credibility to the statement.
Joy in no way wanted to discover what happened when his small patience wore thin, yet all she could think of was--"I can't tell you."
"Only slightly better than a lie. Why not?" Now his tone suggested the casual interest of teatime chatter, and his apparent capriciousness left her stunned.
"It could risk the lives of many innocent people," she replied.
"Innocent?' He chuckled. "I've seen more innocence in the spread of a whore's thighs."
Unbelievably, the metaphor brought quick color to her cheeks, and this, more than any one thing, surprised him. He stared in sudden wonder. Try as he would, he could not reconcile that single blush with the girl's behavior. This added dangerously to both his curiosity and impatience, and he was just about to make his threats explicit when suddenly one of the bound men groaned and tried to lift his head again.
Still maintaining the lowered attack stance, Rake barked angrily, and Ram glanced up, for a moment distracted. Joy Claret saw the chance—her only chance—and before her fear could caution her, she stiffened purposely, cast her gaze behind her captor and screamed, "No! Don't shoot him!"
She never wasted a moment to marvel at the speed of Ram's reflexes. The words had not left her mouth, and Ram was off her, standing in his own attack stance at an invisible perpetrator. Alerted and barking, Rake dashed to his master's side, adding confusion to the startling few seconds it took Ram to search the surroundings and see that no one was there. Just as he turned back around to catch her, Joy vaulted her nervous mount with an agility that gave lift to Ram's brow. Libertine leaped into the air, and the last thing Joy heard—the only thing she heard—was the fine sound of Ram Barrington's laughter.